Yasmin Levy a voice which does strange things to you

Yasmin Levy (b. 1975) an Israeli-Spanish singer songwriter is one of the world’s most heart-rending interpreters of Sephardic music.[1] I use “heart-rending” in this place to signify affectively moving. Her intensely soulful and emotional interpretations of this genre, inspired by the Ladino and flamenco cultures with its mix of Middle Eastern influences, is for Levy herself a way towards a “musical reconciliation of history”.[2] The key word here is “reconciliation” not only in terms of the singer’s philosophy (she is a goodwill ambassador for the charity Children of Peace), but also for her fusion of musical styles and instruments. The mistake some admirers of her music have made is to argue for one musical influence over the other. Ultimately, this is music and a voice without borders and that is why it travels deep. It is universal and so expressively symbolic [think on Andrés Segovia’s or Paco de Lucía’s timeless guitar playing for example] that it matters little whether you understand the words. When Yasmin sings her songs in the same way when you read a great poem, you become little by little silent and enter into the hard to define realm of joyful-sorrow.[3] You could feel crushed for a while, yet at the same time grateful that you might cross the threshold into that interior space of pulsating emotion.

The British musicologist and author of The Sound of the City Charlie Gillett said that after Yasmin Levy stops singing, “I unwillingly open my eyes and face reality.”[4] And it has proven true, that which Ivan Chrysler writes in the same BBC Radio 3 article, “[s]he has a voice that does strange things to audiences and critics alike.”[5] What is happening here? We are engaging in what philosophers who write on the aesthetics of music might describe: inner listening.

“I give you the song of my life forever until the day I die alone, walking the roads of this world…” (Lyrics from La Alegria).

The raspy blues of the inimitable Joe Cocker

There are voices in the world of rock n’ roll as quickly recognizable as one of those classic guitar riffs which peal off a Jimi Hendrix or an Eric Clapton Fender Stratocaster. Even from the first syllables we know Aretha Franklin, or Bob Marley, Janis Joplin, or Jim Morrison. It is a stellar list and a passionately contested one.[1] What is certain somewhere on this list we find the inimitable Joe Cocker, he of the spasmodic movement and of “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” fame.[2] Yet he still remains underappreciated. Perhaps he is too often typeset into those images of the young and wild rocker from the 70’s who made his iconic mark with a cover of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help of My Friends” at Woodstock on August 17th, 1969.[3] And yet “[c]ontrary to his image”, writes Jimmy Webb, “[he was] sober for most of his life.”[4] John Robert Cocker born 1944 in Sheffield, England, passed away after a battle with lung cancer in Colorado on 22nd December 2014.[5] His body and soul were a well weathered seventy years of living. And a voice from the depths of the earth which could break you into a thousand pieces and put you back together inside the time-frame of a song. There is a broad consensus in the music world that the bluesy and raspy Cocker was “without doubt the greatest rock/soul singer ever to come out of Britain.”[6] It is not surprising that one of his great musical influences was the pioneer of soul music himself, “The Genius” Ray Charles.[7]

There is a wonderful moment in time captured on video where a noticeably emotional Joe Cocker shares the stage with his boyhood hero to deliciously belt out one of his signature songs, Billy Preston’s and Bruce Fisher’s, You Are So Beautiful.[8]

Similarly to Joplin, his was not the most beautiful voice, but like Janis herself, it was one of the most recognizably soulful. A “soulful growl” some have called it. I came to Joe Cocker later in life but it was all the sweeter to make this discovery at a time when the great anthemic music of the 60s and 70s was disappearing. At high school like most of my mates I was into the progressive hard rock bands, soloists were not your typical “cool”.

In a characteristically relaxed interview with ZDFkultur, Joe Coker smiles: “My dad would say get a proper job.”[9]

An hour ago I was listening to Gabriel Fauré’s exquisite Requiem[10] and now I am enthralled by Cocker’s gravely sorrowing in “The Letter”. How is that possible? “Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness” (Maya Angelou).

Sometimes it can be too difficult to pray, music is the only honest alternative.

Below is a selection of Joe Cocker songs which have accompanied me on various journeys. Two of my favourites are Noubliez Jamais (J. Cregan and R. Kunkel) “So dance your own dance, and never forget” and Unforgiven (M. Allen, K. Dioguardi, et al.) “As much as life seems less for living/ I still try”. Harold and Madge’s son might not have been a song writer nor learnt to play the guitar, but very few could cover a tune like he could and make it distinctively their own.

Eastern Orthodox Liturgical Chant

Music has been a part of my life ever since I was a little child, a significant witness to the passing of the years. I can still remember. Whether it was listening to the Divine Liturgy, which Mother would play on her treasured vinyl records (LPs), or to the easy listening stations at the Reno Café, where the old Philips radio was forever on. And later by choice, when I was older, music would accompany me everywhere from the city across the ocean and into the desert. Whatever the condition of the heart, as King David one of the authors of the Psalms well knew, there is consolation in music. But I have even from my childhood noted a difference between what we might call sacred and secular music.[1] It seemed the natural distinction to make. And the manifest difference between the two? In very simple terms, sacred music relates to God, to ‘the divine’, whereas secular music will typically relate to the human, ‘to the earthly’. Sacred music as well, has a tradition of being accepted as a music genre set apart for worship by a large group of a believing community. It is conventionally in the form of a chant (“a rhythmic speaking or singing”).[2] Another difference between the sacred and the secular is that the former is text confirmed in scripture and liturgical texts, and does not stimulate or arouse violence or wickedness,[3] which secular music can do.

This is a tremendous topic and one which can stimulate much discussion, especially when it comes to definitions and to people’s biases of what actually constitutes the sacred.[4] It could be as difficult as trying to get behind Dostoyevsky’s enigmatic “[b]eauty will save the world” spoken by the Christ-like figure the epileptic Prince Myshkin. But technically, at least, chant, is one of the signature characteristics of sacred music together with its connection to ritual and cultic practices. I can be moved to tears, for example, when I listen to Kris Kristofferson’s country gospel “Why Me, Lord?”[5] Or Barbara Streisand’s haunting rendition of “Avinu Malkeinu”.[6] Where would musicologists place these songs in a canon of religious music? I know they swell up an enduring gratitude in my own heart. The spine-tingling Christos Anesti sung by Irene Papas [7] which was adapted by Vangelis from the traditional hymn is another piece of music which can test the boundaries for the definition of a music style or form. Nor as a Christian, is the magnificent Azan from Sheikh Abdul majeed,[8] or listening to Cantor Moishe Oysher,[9] something which does not deeply touch and act upon my spirit. Gregorian chant synonymous with the Roman Catholic Church plays a part in my devotions, as do the inspiring chants of the Taizé community. From the masters of classical music there is an impressive list of great requiems in the dramatic tradition of the concert oratorio. The purpose behind sacred music, or at least that music which is specifically set aside for worship, is to lead to interior reflection and spiritual growth.

“Nothing elevates the soul,” writes Saint John Chrysostom, “nothing gives it wings as a liturgical hymn does.” In modern terms this could be transliterated into Hunter S. Thompson’s poetics on music as “energy” and “fuel”.

The intention behind this little introduction was to share some paragons of the sacred music from my own community of worship, the Eastern Orthodox Church. Outwardly traceable to the classical age of the Greeks but strongly influenced by the “Jewish Synagogue chant and psalmody”, eastern liturgical chant in its present recognizable form was developed in the earliest years of the Byzantine Empire.[10] Below are samples of the chant which is not to be confused with the Byzantine music of the courtly ceremonials.[11]  If you do not have time to listen to all the pieces, then might I suggest the cantor who is considered the principal of his generation, Theodoros Vasilikos, and the angelic Cherubic Hymn from the Novospassky Monastery Choir:

Magical Recordings

Gerringong, NSW 2015

If you have some spare time, please enjoy these memorable performances. How incredibly fortunate we are these magical recordings are easily accessible to us. There are many insightful quotes connected to music and one of my preferred belongs to Victor Hugo (the author of Les Misérables). “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” I have a long list of favourite recordings that I will invariably turn to when my spirits are a little down. Those below saved for posterity on YouTube I will visit often and cannot ever imagine being without:

Brigitte Engerer plays Chopin Nocturne in D-Flat Major

Motzart The Requiem Mass in D Minor conducted by Herbert von Karajan

Beethoven Symphony No 9 conducted by Leonard Bernstein

Motzart Piano Concerto in D Minor soloist and conductor Mitsuko Uchida

Beethoven Symphony No 3 in E Flat “Eroica” conducted by Herbert von Karajan

Vladimir Horowitz plays Rachmaninoff 3rd Concerto

Beethoven Moonlight Sonata conducted by Wilhelm Kempff

Mahler Resurrection Symphony No 2 conducted by Claudio Abbado

Mahler Symphony No 6 “Tragic” conducted by Lorin Maazel

I love the dynamics of Beethoven (1770-1827) and the range of Motzart (1756-1791) but too regularly I am overcome by the volatility of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). And then there are: Handel, Bach, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Liszt, Fauré. You would think them angels made flesh on conditional release from another plane. There are the moderns as well: Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), John Tavener (1944-2013), Arvo Pärt (b. 1935), and more. I will leave these latter day greats for another time.

I have only just drafted a little story:

…a deaf Beethoven arm-in-arm with a blind Brahms… Ars longa, vita brevis.